Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Coping With the After Shocks of Sexual Abuse-- Beyond The Sandusky and Catholic Church Scandals


"Every day, do something that will inch you closer to a better tomorrow"
                                        -Dough Firebaugh

     The recent convictions of Pennsylvania State University football coach Jerry Sandusky and the former Philadelphia Archdiocese secretary sheds light on the sad fact that the abuse of children by adults in positions of authority continues to occur. Many articles have been written about the disturbing psychological profile of the perpetrators but few about victims and their difficult road to recovery. Despite the recent increase in media attention on this societal ill, child sexual abuse is largely under reported. It is not uncommon and remains a serious problem in the United States. Many victims of child sexual abuse do not acknowledge, tell anyone, or work on psychological issues stemming from their past abuse until they are adults and well beyond childhood.

     Sexual abuse victims suffer from a series of psychological aftershocks. Research has shown victims to have higher levels of sexual disturbance and dysfunction, sexual identity confusion, poor adult functioning, higher levels of depression, lower levels of self-esteem, and are more likely to be re-victimized than non abused individuals. Survivors tend to feel isolated and stigmatized. They engage in self-destructive behaviors such as alcohol and drug abuse, gambling, and participate in risky and impulsive sexual encounters. Female  victims of sexual abuse are at greater risk for developing eating disorders, personality disorders (borderline personality disorder), and drug and alcohol dependencies. Another aftershock is the fact that child sexual abuse victims are much more likely to become perpetrators as adults and many victims suffer life long symptoms associated with Post Traumatic Stress disorder.

      It is important for survivors to relinquish any feelings of guilt they may have connected to the abuse. Through counseling and support groups, victims can let go of the illogical feelings of responsibility that they often experience associated with their abuse. Furthermore, much research has shown that the passage of time is an important element to one's recovery. And "recovery" may not be the same for all individuals. The type, degree, frequency, and level of violence that victims experienced greatly impacts their recovery.

     Survivals of sexual abuse have difficulty forming and maintaining intimate relationships and are at higher risk for divorce. Victims will often have great difficulty trusting others close to them. Abusers are most commonly a well known and trusted adult, such as a close family friend, teacher, religious leader or sporting coach. Recovery involves rebuilding the ability to trust. Once victims are able to accomplish this fundamental human need and task, they can look forward to experiencing rewarding and fulfilling relationships.
     If you or someone you know is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse it is important to get the proper help from a trained mental health professional. A mental health professional who is specifically trained in sexual abuse trauma can help victims to work on issues of trust and intimacy. It is important for all survivors to realize there is hope for them to be able to lead happy and satisfying lives.

Below are four tips for victims and their loved ones:

1. Be patient with yourself-recovery takes time, effort, and lots of emotional energy.

2. Consider joining a support group. Being with other survivors can help rebuild trust. www.rainn.org

3. Learn about the signs and symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Being aware of them can help you with getting through the tough times and bad days.

4. Mediation and relaxation exercises can help you cope with your negative feelings such as anger, stress, and anxiety associated with abuse.

If you have other suggestions for helping victims of sexual abuse please share them here. I want to hear from you.

This article was written by Paula Durlofsky, Ph.D., a practicing psychologist in Bryn Mawr, Pa. To learn more about me and my practice please visit my web page at www.drpauladurlofsky.com.


  1. I think what matters here most is being able to sympathize with the victim. The feeling of betrayal sticks like gum on the bottom of your shoe. It may or may not go away, and they will be left feeling like they can’t trust anyone. Give them some time to process what happened before sending them to therapy. Keep them company, make them feel like they are not alone, that there are those who care for them. Patience is key when it comes to situations like this. Acceptance will come tomorrow, and it is a small quiet room. No grand parades, no welcoming committees, no red carpets. It will simply be.

    Vesta Duvall @ Zalkin.com

  2. Vesta,
    Thank you for your meaningful and insightful comment.
    Paula Durlofsky